What does the tractor of the future look like and how will it be fuelled?


22 February 2022
The evolution of farm machines, driven by low carbon targets, is examined by experts

TRACTORS of the future will be a mix of different fuel types and innovative tech and there are two key drivers: Reducing emissions, and precision farming, according to Mike Woollacott, MD of Greenwatt Technology who was due to explore applications for on-farm renewable energy, including transport, at the Low Carbon Agriculture show.

Mike says we can expect a steep rise in autonomous tractors and robots on farms, and more variation in machinery designed for specific purposes. The machines will be fuelled by a mixture of renewable electricity (batteries), hydrogen and biomethane, at least in the short-term.

“Tractors below 50 horsepower can be battery-powered, and I see these being multi-tooled, with bolt on and off systems and predict there will be a rise of smaller machines and robots specifically developed for precision techniques," said Mike. “For larger vehicles, if we can’t replace a high-power fuel like diesel with a battery, we need something that can replace it. Hydrogen has the power. However, there are some caveats; Hydrogen has supply limitations, also hydrogen fuel cell powered systems may not be ideally suited to operate well under vibration and dusty field conditions.”

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Mike said farms would be able to produce their own hydrogen through a process of electrolysis using renewable electricity from solar or wind to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, but currently electrolysis is too expensive to justify at farm scale. “Perhaps a hydrogen and battery hybrid will provide the solution of adequate power with zero emissions,” he said. “Biomethane sourced from upgraded biogas from on farm AD plants is already available but this solution depends on access to gas powered tractors and enough AD units. Ultimately, tractors of the future could all look very different.”
Advances in the cost and efficiency of batteries and alternative fuels in the automotive industry should spill over into the prospects for tractors and other agricultural machinery, according to Neil Wallis at Zemo Partnership, the not-for-profit organisation helping to accelerate transport to zero emissions.
“Enabling sustainable farm production - using less energy and inputs - is expected to be a core tenet of future product design. Farmers will be encouraged to move away from heavier equipment to help reduce soil compaction, allowing fields to absorb and sequester more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” said Neil.

“There are an array of opportunities connected with the production of renewable energy, especially wind and solar, by farmers which ultimately may be used in transport, either directly as electricity or renewably-sourced hydrogen.” 

Another opportunity for farmers is the evolution of rural charging infrastructure, where the agricultural industry could be central, according to Lisa Howkins at NFU Energy.
“Research has shown that if we are to meet demand and hit decarbonisation targets, the UK needs to be installing 40-50 new chargers every day for the next 10 years. To help every farmer in the UK become part of a net zero sector by 2040, NFU Energy has launched its Renewable Energy Solutions and Electric Vehicles services. We have partnered with three specialists in this area to ensure we can cater for the entire farming community. Our services cover, standalone chargers, multiple same-site chargers, and land-leasing arrangements, giving landowners the opportunity to earn a rental income. Our offering provides EV drivers access to the fastest charging available,” she said.

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